Fuse #8

Monday, February 20, 2006

Review of the Day: Revenge of the Witch

This book got a fair amount of attention not that long ago. It's creepy and actually had me sucked in like no other scary children's book I've experienced before. Consider this a must have addition to your collection.

When a kid comes up to me in the library (I’m a children’s librarian) and asks for something scary I usually hem and haw and eventually hand them “Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark”, as a starter. If they ask for scarier fare (which, honestly, shouldn’t be hard) I’m usually hard pressed to come up with something truly frightening. I suppose there’s good old “Wait Till Helen Comes” but all too often children’s books rely far more on atmosphere rather than out and out teeth chattering suspense. Enter Joseph Delaney. Delaney has been writing fantasy and sorcery tales for adults since 1985. With “Revenge of the Witch” he makes his first foray into the world of children’s literature and a significant step it is too. Chilling, nail-biting, and downright enjoyable the book is bound to be loved by reluctant readers, die-hard fantasy fans, and lovers of good children’s literature alike.

Being the seventh son in a family means that when it comes to a lifetime occupation, there isn’t much to chose from. Fortunately for Thomas Ward, he isn’t just a seventh son. He’s the seventh son of a seventh son and that means something special. Unlike normal people, Thomas can hear the ghasts of hanged men up on a hill near his home. He can sense and see things that would frighten even the stoutest of hearts. It seems logical then that he should be apprenticed to a spook. Spooks roam the county keeping people safe from everything from boggarts to witches. Thomas is doing well enough and goes to life in the spook’s home. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when a local girl persuades Thomas to feed some sticky cakes to a witch trapped underground by the spook. Now Thomas must go head to head with a particularly nasty witch and her kin before innocent lives (including his own) are lost.

The whole seventh son of a seventh son idea has been used to great advantage by a wide variety of authors. The best known, I suppose, would have to be “Seventh Son” by Orson Scott Card. For his part, Delaney has taken great care to work British myths, legends, and local superstitions into the framework of “Revenge of the Witch”. If you see him discussing a hairy boggart or a cattle ripper you can bet that he’s incorporated the idea from a regional belief or story. He’s also worked his own experiences into the text. At one point in the book Thomas has to spend a night in a haunted house and at the stroke of midnight go into the basement to face whatever might be lurking below. The whole kid-spends-a-night-in-a-haunted-house idea is ancient and, had I heard about it without reading this book, a bit trite. “Revenge of the Witch”, however, makes the concept completely mind-blowingly frightening. The sequence, as it happens, was drawn from Delaney’s own experiences as a child. In an interview with “The Independent”, Delaney had this to say: “the haunted house in Watery Lane is a house that I lived in as a child. It was a terraced house next to a canal. When we lived there I used to have a recurring dream. I’d be in the room with my mother knitting and it would be warm and cosy. Then it would start getting darker and colder. I’d know that something was going to happen and I couldn’t move. Then this thing would come up from the cellar and move into the room, like a shadow. It would pick me up and carry me towards the coal cellar. All of the children in our family had the same dream. Years later we talked about it and discovered that we’d all had the same dream. We all believed that if we’d been taken down into the cellar we would have died”. So there you have it. The terrors of real life are neatly synthesized into a children’s book that’ll have you eyeing your own basement reluctantly for weeks on end.

The book was originally published in Great Britain and what with the British covers of children’s books so often trumping America’s, I was amazed when I discovered that Greenwillow Publishers had tapped an especially unique resource right here at home. You see, for all the charms of “The Spook’s Apprentice” (as it was called in England), there weren’t any illustrations in the original tome. Enter our very own homegrown artist Patrick Arrasmith. Using a style that looks like woodcuts but may well be scratchboard art (it’s difficult to tell and his homepage ain’t saying) Arrasmith’s art eloquently ups the creepy tone of “Revenge of the Witch” significantly. From its haunting cover art to illustrations of everything from a hand dripping blood to a single hand holding a candle flame, Arrasmith is the perfect complement to Delaney’s dark tale. A more perfect pairing I could not imagine. At first glance Arrasmith’s work looks similar to that of “Wicked” illustrator Bill Sanderson, but of the two I think Arrasmith allows for a greater sense of atmosphere and tone.

There are plenty of nasty ends, bitten off fingers, and baby eating witches here to frighten off the weak. For those amongst you that don’t mind a little gore with your scares and some fine fine writing as well, “Revenge of the Witch” is the perfect gift for the kids who want to be scared but find everything in the library a bit too tame.


At 10:30 AM , Blogger Disco Mermaids said...

My wife and I are reading this before bed each night. I love the book's atmosphere. So far, we're really enjoying it!

- Jay

At 10:26 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

You're reading this before beddy-bye?!? I can't imagine scarier nighttime reading. For some reason the haunted house sequence scared the bejeezus out of me. Then again, I was the kind of kid who couldn't watch "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" as a kid because the blueberry sequence chilled my bones. In essence, I am a wimp. I commend your own bravery.

At 2:10 PM , Blogger Dan McCoy said...

C'mon man-- the text to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark may not have been that frightening, but the illustrations were nightmare-inducing.


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